[ABIDJAN, 2 August 2007] – Pro-government and rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, have subjected thousands of women and girls to rape and other brutal sexual assaults with impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
Despite recent progress in the peace process, the latest accord fails to address this widespread sexual violence or the need for accountability
While the worst sexual violence took place during the height of the armed conflict from 2002 to 2004, women and girls continue to be subjected to acts of sexual violence.
“Sexual violence has been the silent crime of Côte d’Ivoire’s military and political crisis,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Combatants responsible for rape and other acts of sexual violence have enjoyed almost complete impunity, while the survivors have been denied both justice and medical attention.”
Girls as young as six raped
Fighters on both sides have raped women old enough to be their grandmothers, girls as young as 6, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.
They have also inserted guns, sticks, pens, and other objects into their victims’ vaginas. Combatants have abducted women and girls to serve as sex slaves, and have forcibly conscripted them into the fighting forces.
Sexual violence has been often accompanied by other gross human rights violations against the victims, their families and their communities, including torture, killing, mutilation and even cannibalism.
Côte d’Ivoire – once considered a pillar of stability and progress in West Africa – has for at least seven years been consumed by a political and military crisis rooted in ethnic, religious, political and economic issues. Efforts to resolve the armed conflict between the government and northern-based rebels have produced a string of unfulfilled peace agreements, the deployment of more than 11,000 foreign peacekeeping troops, and the imposition of a UN arms embargo and travel and economic sanctions.
In March, the government and rebels signed the Ouagadougou Agreement, envisioned to bring about an end to the crisis and lead to elections later this year.
Some rape victims died because of the sexual violence they endured. Others were raped so violently that they suffered serious bleeding, tearing in the genital area, long-term incontinence, and severe infections. Others suffered from botched abortions following the sexual assault. Many complained of bleeding, deep abdominal aches, and burning pains. Countless victims suffered from sexually transmitted infections and were put at high risk for the transmission of HIV and AIDS. Deterred by shame and poverty, few survivors of sexual violence ever receive the medical help they need.
The Ivorian government and the rebel New Forces (Forces Nouvelles) have made only scant efforts to investigate or prosecute perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes involving sexual violence.
This failure has contributed to an environment of increasingly entrenched lawlessness where impunity prevails. For its part, the international community has consistently sidelined initiatives to combat impunity in Côte d’Ivoire, presumably due to a fear of upsetting negotiation efforts.
In rebel-held territory, and particularly in the west, some women were targeted for abuse because of their ethnicity or perceived pro-government affiliation, often because their husband, father or another male relative worked for the state.
Many others appeared to have been targeted randomly for sexual assault. Women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in their homes, as they sought refuge after being found hiding in forests, when stopped at military checkpoints, while working on farms, and at places of worship.
Numerous women and girls were abducted and subjected to sexual slavery in rebel camps where they endured sexual abuse over extended periods of time. Resistance was frequently met with horrific punishment or even death. Some sex slaves, intimidated by their captors and the other circumstances, felt powerless to escape their life of sexual slavery. An unknown number of such women and girls remain with their captors.
Pro-government forces – including members of the gendarmerie, police, army, and militias – were widely responsible for rape and other forms of sexual abuse against women and girls, especially in the heavily contested western region and along frontlines.